Stealing the Show: Women Writers at an Afghan Literary Festival in Tehran
The third annual Qand-e Parsi (‘Sweetness of Persian’) Literary Festival, with the motto “The voice of today’s generation in Afghan literature,” took place in Tehran’s Daneshju Cultural Centre on the 26th and 27th of September 2005. Organised by the Tehran-based House of Afghan Literature with support from several Iranian cultural institutions, the festival provided a forum for budding Afghan refugee writers and poets residing in different parts of Iran to gather, share their recitations, and have their work appraised by a panel of leading Afghan and Iranian literary figures.
The most striking feature among the participants was that the majority – almost two thirds of the 28 finalists, and nine of the 13 prize winners – were women. These figures reflect the high proportion of women participating in youth literary activities among Afghans in Iran, itself a reflection of Afghan women’s increasingly assertive demand to have their voices heard in the public domain. Although women’s oral poetry has a long tradition in Afghanistan, until a few decades ago, women were rarely individually recognized as poets or writers on a par with men. Their presence thus reflects a fundamental shift in attitudes towards women’s education, work and public visibility among Afghan refugees in Iran, thanks to the attention these issues receive in their host society.
For the over 2.5 million Afghan refugees who found shelter in Iran during the years of foreign occupation, civil war and repressive theocracy in their country, the hardships of exile were somewhat eased by access to the labor market and state services. Perhaps most significantly, the silver lining of decades of life as refugees has been the access to good quality elementary schooling and universities for Afghan children, and the creation of a generation of well-educated, worldly youth. Paradoxically, girls and women have been freer to study or to pursue creative activities while young men are more preoccupied with the difficulties of trying to earn an income to support their families in the small number of menial occupations they are officially entitled to practice. The flowering of Afghan cultural, educational and artistic organizations and publications in Iran is a testimony to their new-found literacy and awareness, to a growing sense of social responsibility and self-confidence, and to the optimism and possibilities of post-war reconstruction.
Most of the refugees who settled in Iran as families are Shi‘a Muslims (largely Hazaras, Tajiks, and Shi‘a seyyeds who trace their descent from the Prophet) who arrived from rural areas in which women’s activities were usually confined to the home. They chose Iran for its religious, Shi‘i environment (but also for its geographical proximity and its labor market), while more affluent and secular middle-class families usually had the resources to seek asylum in Western countries. It is no small measure of the progress Iran has made in terms of women’s rights that the same families which fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation because the communist regime required girls to attend school, are now trying to extend their stay in Iran for as long as possible because they believe educational facilities for girls in Afghanistan to be inadequate. They have also absorbed the values of social advancement of both sexes through education that are prevalent in Iran. Unfortunately, access to schools and universities has recently been curtailed by the government in an effort to step up pressure on Afghans to repatriate.
Mahboobeh Ebrahimi, one of the organisers of the festival and herself an award-winning poet, describes the aims of Afghan literary groups: “We hope to introduce ourselves to the world – to countries which only see the face of poverty of Afghanistan. If you travel to Afghanistan, you will see the poverty in society; however, culturally, we are a rich people. We want to promote the face that is not seen, to have our work translated and read by the world, and to change the not very positive light in which we are represented.”
But for Afghan youth, participation in such activities speaks of a more basic need – the need for a creative outlet in what for most is still an existence fraught with uncertainty, frustration and humiliation. “The reason why young Afghans take an interest in poetry, I think, is that it is a world in which they can take shelter, and free themselves from the difficult moments of exile; and it is an opportunity for them to speak their own minds, or to find their thoughts in the words of other poets they read,” says Zahra Hosseinzadeh, 25, a previous winner of the poetry category who took third place this year. This need to express and relieve the pressure of their dard-e daruni (internal pain), was echoed by many other young Afghans I have spoken to, whether they chose to do so through poetry, prose, music, or theatre.
For female writers and poets, such expression often takes on a woman-centred angle. Hosseinzadeh continues, “In the past few years I’ve tried to write poetry as a woman, rather than as a person who could be of either gender. The differences are not great, because all humans have common emotions. But a woman lives with a certain loneliness and certain restrictions on her rights, and is always seeking to speak out: to say my rights have been taken from me, to say that I’m not just a mother, I am also a human being who can be in society just like a man and have rights – and it’s not just the kitchen that belongs to me, all of society belongs to me.” She has lived most of her life in the Iranian city of Mashhad, has a degree in Islamic Sciences and Culture, and has published a volume of her work. Most of her own poems, in the modernized ghazal style she prefers, address social issues, such as poverty, faith, and the problems of women and youth.
Most of the women interviewed emphasized the femininity and uniqueness – even superiority – of their vision rather than their equal capability vis-à-vis men. “The quality of the women’s work was much higher than that of the men. Because of their refined visions of life, the natural world, and their surroundings and their feminine sense and perception, women interact with their surroundings more comfortably and easily, and these encounters are expressed in their poetry,” says Ebrahimi. “Women’s sensitivity towards events and to the external environment is much higher than that of men. Of course, one can’t say that male poets don’t have such a spirit, but women have a greater aptitude because of their natural temperament,” adds Rahimeh Mirzaee, 24, from Mashhad, who was awarded an honorable mention in the poetry category. “The poetic spirit is much closer to women than to men. They are much more witty and elegant,” agrees Basi Gol Sharifi, 25, a member of the organizing team of the festival.
Nonetheless, the difficulties young female poets and writers still face should not be underestimated. Although Ebrahimi points out that writing is an unobtrusive and inexpensive activity which can be done inside the home without a great need for materials or training, a writer’s further development and career necessitates her physical presence in the public sphere – whether at the weekly poetry and prose readings and criticism sessions held by Afghan organizations in Mashhad and Tehran, or at festivals such as this one. All such sessions involve mixing or even traveling with male colleagues, and for those who are married, neglecting their domestic duties for a few hours or even days (some arrived with their young children in tow). Many of the young women are very religious themselves, choosing to wear chadors in addition to the manteau and maqna'e that have become the official and unofficial uniform of female students and professional women in Iran. Many insisted on their right to appear in this forum, and in addition to benefiting from the encouragement of the older writers, many had the support of their families. But the stories of the confrontations and sacrifices they have had to make, and of those women who were unable to continue, remain untold.
The short-listed stories read during the festival revealed something of the inner worlds of young refugees and the small events and ironies of their daily lives. In one, a young woman visits a beauty salon before a wedding, trying to choose a color with which to cover up her prematurely greying hair, only to settle for black because a “happier” color does not suit her. Another narrated a boy’s stream-of-consciousness during a bus ride, taking so long to balance potential embarrassment and doing the right thing in deciding whether or not to give up his seat to an old man that eventually someone else does. One girl’s story represented a particularly bold experiment in theme and narrative form: a sexual encounter between an anonymous couple, told from the point of view of a chair in the room.
The poetry, meanwhile, tended to be lyrical, intimately personal, philosophical or political, for the most part in the modernized ghazal (‘ode’) style with fixed rhymes and meters, or in the blank verse of modern Iranian poetry. Nineteen year-old Vajiheh Khodanazar of Varamin, whose ambition is to be a leading poet, came close this year when she was awarded second place in the poetry category. Her ghazal told of her sadness when a loved one was resettled to Australia, the painful passage of time, and her helplessness at not being able to fly after him:
Now the little sparrow that couldn’t fly
Gazes every night at sunset, dazzled, at the horizon.
Hālā ghorubhā be ofogh khire mishavad
Gonjeshk-e kuchaki ke paridan balad nabud
Hosseinzadeh’s ghazal, on the other hand, reflected both the Islamic foundations of her feminism, and her concern with social justice through a reference to Asieh, the Pharaoh’s wife in the Qur’an, who rejects his cruelty and opulence for a simple, pious life.
O king of my most troubled dreams!
I want to turn away from you
I gave my heart to someone’s simplicity
I flee from your silver crown and throne
All around my blood is flowing
Don’t make me dance on glass every night
Be a pharaoh unto yourself and restrain your ego
And I’ll remain your Asieh until the end of time.
Soltān-e khābhāye parishānam!
Mikhāham az to ruy begardānam
Man del be sādegiye kasi dādam
Az tāj o takht-e noqreh gorizānam
Khun-e man ast dar hame su jāri
Har shām ruye shishe naraqsānam
Fer’oun-e khish bāsh va khodāi kon
Man tā qhiāmat Asieh mimānam
Leila Heydari of Qom, meanwhile, dedicated her poem to the oppressed women of Afghanistan.
Mahboobeh Ebrahimi is optimistic about the future. “I’m certain that in 20 or 25 years, we will have a generation of female writers and poets in Afghanistan. Alongside all the difficulties of exile, this is a blessing that has been given to us - women have had space to breathe in a cultural environment like that of Iran, but based on our own cultural foundations. We have our roots in history; Afghanistan is a country that has been shaped by history... If we apply our cultural background and shared collective unconscious to the environment of exile, we might even be better than the Iranian women poets. If Afghan women take a professional approach to poetry and writing, I believe they can be better than their Iranian counterparts.” Hosseinzadeh, who teaches Persian literature, also tries to encourage her students: “I tell them, ‘In this wide world, you, too, have the right to a fresh point of view, to discover everything for yourself, and to tell the world of your discoveries as a woman – with words, through poetry.’”
To learn more about the Qand-e Parsi Literary Festival, visit: ghandeparsi.blogfa.com.
 The only example of this to appear in the West, to my knowledge, is an anthology of landays or rhyming couplets by Pashtun women, collected by Seyyed Baha’ ud-Din Majrouh (Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women’s Poetry, New York, Other Press, 2003).
 It should be noted that only documented refugees were entitled to attend state schools in Iran; the school attendance of young boys of poor families was often limited by their need to earn a living; and Iran has periodically restricted even documented refugees from attending school – last year, for example, heavy fees were imposed on them where schooling had previously been free of charge, causing hundreds of thousands to leave school. Nonetheless, Afghan activists estimate that around 90% of Afghan children in the city of Mashhad, for example, were in state schools until last year, and Afghan pupils were routinely among the top students in every class.